Who do you say that I am? This question resonates in the heart of a young person battling with the glamour of sin. The question whispers in the mind of a young couple struggling to keep the right balance in their relationship.
It is pondered by the single mum struggling to provide for her young children, not knowing where the next meal will come from. It is a question facing the politician as he/she considers legislations that go contrary to his or her faith. This question challenges us in our everyday decisions, and our response to it is a mark of the strength of our relationship with the Lord at any given time.
When Jesus asks the question: “Who do people say that I am?” It does not reflect an identity crisis on his part but rather he wants to see whether his closest companions have a clear understanding of who he is. Their initial responses reflect the confusion in the public arena: “John the Baptist,’ they said, ‘others Elijah; others again, one of the prophets.” (v28). Nevertheless, and contrary to the opinion of some scholars, Jesus knew exactly who he was – the Son of God and Redeemer of mankind. At the age of twelve he stunned his human parents by claiming the Temple to be “my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49). In other instances, he expressly declares: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9); “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27).So, Jesus knew exactly who he was!
Our Muslim friends hold him to be a prophet but not the Son of God because God could not possibly have a son like humans. They do not share our faith in the Incarnation or the Trinity. Some of us Christians take Jesus to a businessman and have a transactional attitude to faith. This attitude easily manifests when there is, say, sickness or death in the family, and people begin to think that God has let them down. They begin to wonder why God would let a disaster come upon them given that they are regular mass goers, who keep the commandments and do a lot of God work in the parish. Some people take Jesus to be just a social worker or human rights’ activist, and such people pay attention only to his social teachings while neglecting his moral code. Some of us take Jesus to be hitman who will help to punish or destroy their enemies. Next, in the Gospel, the Lord directs the question to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers correctly that he is the Christ, the Anointed of God. And yes, he is the Lord and he is God. Jesus is not just a superhuman being; he is God – eternal, glorious, completely perfect. He is immeasurably greater that we could ever imagine, and his love is more than human love multiplied a thousand times. He is the perfect expression of God’s love, power and might.
Going forward, he tells his companions about his impending passion, but Peter would have none of that. However, in trying to dissuade Jesus from his journey to the cross, Peter becomes an obstacle to him. And that is why the Lord tells him to “Get behind me, Satan”. Peter is rebuked for rejecting the prospect of suffering. Scandalized and perhaps frightened, he briefly opposes Jesus’ mission, just like Satan who also sought to divert Jesus from his mission to suffer by tempting him in the wilderness (Cf.Matt.4:1-11; Lk.4:1-11). Satan is the main obstacle to the victory of the cross, and so to the extent that we do not embrace the journey to the cross, to that extent we become “Satan”.
We become like Peter whenever we adopt a Christianity without the cross, an Easter without Good Friday. We become an obstacle whenever we negate the commandments of God or the teachings of the Church. We become an obstacle to the cross when our spirituality is lacking in sacrifice or when we embrace relativism – denying the reality of objective moral principles. These are the sort of tendencies that Jesus wants us to put behind because man’s ways are different from God’s. We need to follow his lead and not ours. As Scripture says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (v.34). Taking up one’s cross refers to the Roman custom of forcing condemned criminals to carry on their shoulders a crossbar to their place of crucifixion. Jesus is emphatic that we must be so committed to him that we do not mind persecution, hardship, or even death.
Joyfully following Christ involves the pain of self-sacrifice – this is the paradox of the cross. It is not easy to be faithful to one’s conscience, the teachings of the Church, and the Ten Commandment. It all involves self-disciple and, sometimes, humiliation and persecution. Jesus is clear that no disciple “is greater than his master” (John 13:16). If he had to suffer to open the gates to heaven, we too have to suffer in following him. To be a true disciple involves sharing in the cross and there is no way around it. However, when the cross is borne together with Christ, it makes much meaning and always leads to victory in the end. Jesus promises that whoever endures to the end will be saved (Cf. Matt.24:13).Therefore, amid all the afflictions of life, let us be consoled by the words of St Paul that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us”(Rom.8:18).
As Jesus unites our crosses to his at Mass today, let us thank him for giving meaning to our sufferings, and let us promise to help spread that meaning to others. Amen.